Philosopher Joins ACLU in Phone Records Monitoring Suit

Telephone receiver with simulated phone records. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

UConn philosopher Michael P. Lynch has filed a friend of the court brief in support of the American Civil Liberties Union challenge to the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance of telephone records.

Lynch, a professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says the NSA rationale for looking at the metadata in telephone records “misrepresents the nature of the harm caused by such surveillance,” and that “personal autonomy – the protection of which is a necessary element of any democracy – is ultimately harmed by the government’s dragnet acquisition of telephone and digital data.”

A friend of the court brief, known as an amicus brief in legal terminology, is often filed by private individuals in cases that carry broad public interest, in part to provide knowledge or expertise that the court may find valuable.

“At the heart of this case is not a legal issue, but a moral issue, what it means to be an autonomous person in this society,” says Lynch, who is a frequent contributor to the New York Times’ blog “The Stone,” where he writes on privacy and other issues.

Michael Lynch, professor of philosophy. (Jessica Tommaselli/UConn Photo)

Michael Lynch, professor of philosophy. (Jessica Tommaselli/UConn Photo)

“Our natural interest in informational privacy stems from our nature as persons with privileged access to our own thoughts – our hopes, our plans, our fears, and our dreams,” Lynch says. “The connection between privacy and human dignity illustrates a further fact: that a government that sees its citizen’s private information as subject to tracking and collection has implicitly adopted a stance toward those citizens inconsistent with the respect due to their inherent dignity as autonomous individuals. This kind of government has begun to see its citizens not as persons, but as something to be understood and controlled.”

Lynch says the privacy concern that is the focus of the ACLU suit and voiced by legal experts, centers on the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution but is “far too narrow.”

“Framing the issue this way underestimates the values and interests at stake, and therefore misrepresents the nature of the harm caused by such surveillance,” he says. NSA’s actions in reviewing private telephone records of citizens invades individual privacy and affects “the very nature of what it means to be an autonomous person,” he adds.

The Fourth Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution, says: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The acquisition of the telephone data open to government review includes the number, location, duration, and frequency of calls made. The NSA action, conducted without a warrant issued by a judge, was among the information revealed by former security contractor Edward Snowden.

“The loss of privacy is connected to dehumanization,” says Lynch. “This is a well-known fact. It is employed the world over in every prison and detention camp. It is the core of interrogation techniques that aim to strip a person down literally and figuratively.

“That is an attitude,” he concludes, “that is inconsistent with the demands of the Constitution and democracy itself.”

Referencing long-accepted principles connecting privacy and individual personhood by Rene Descartes and John Locke, Lynch says the NSA action undermines informational privacy – “where information is private to the extent that access to that information is under an individual’s control.”

Lynch’s legal brief notes that informational privacy is an extension of the “privacy of the mental,” and their value is connected. He adds that violations of informational privacy can:

  • contingently harm liberty;
  • harm personal autonomy; and
  • offend human dignity.
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